Mandela confirms historic Ryerson visit

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By Natalie Alcoba

A dark haired boy peers over the top of a podium at Ryerson University and flashes a toothy grin.

Despite his small stature, the 11-year-old stands tall and proud, elevated by the metal suitcase and step beneath his feet. Looking out at a crowd of students, television cameras, administrators and teachers, he hides his nervousness well.

“Hi, my name is Michael. I am from Park Public School. I’m honoured to be here to talk about Nelson Mandela and the changing of our school name.”

On Monday, Michael Nguyen’s Grade Six Regent Park class came to Ryerson for the official announcement of Mandela’s upcoming Toronto visit. The former South African president and his wife, Grace Machel, will attend the renaming ceremony of Nguyen’s school and will both receive an honourary doctorate of laws at Ryerson on Nov. 17. The couple will then fly to Ottawa where Mandela will receive an honourary Canadian citizenship.

“We’re all very excited about bringing Mr. Mandela and Ms. Machel to our campus,” said Ryerson president Claude Lajeunesse at the press conference.

“We will be recognize Mr. Mandela and Ms. Machel for their contribution in protecting, promoting and championing the rights of children.”

The renaming ceremony of the Regent Park school – soon to be Nelson Mandela Park Public School – will take place at 9 a.m., followed by the degree granting ceremony at the Ryerson Theatre at 11  a.m.

John Piper, chair of the Canadian branch of the Nelson Mandela Children’s fund, singled out the university as being instrumental in orchestrating Mandela’s third visit to Canada.

Gordron Cressy, v.p. university advancement, said the timing of the event was perfect.

Cressy, who sits on the Children’s Fund board, said discussions about including Toronto on Mandela’s itinerary began in June, but it wasn’t until August that a formal invitation was extended.

Plans are also in the works for Mandela to attend a fundraising event the night of Nov/ 17, said the executive director of the fund’s Canadian chapter, Vuyiswa Keyi. Tickets will be sold for the high-end dinner organized by members of the business community and all proceeds will go to the fund. But, Keyi said the details won’t be confirmed for another two weeks.

Mandela was imprisoned for nearly three decades for opposing apartheid. He formed the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund shortly after he was elected president of South Africa in 1994.

For Cessy, anticipation of the upcoming visit stirs memories of Mandela’s last trip, which was highlighted by the launch of the fund in Canada. He helped organize the event at the Sky Dome in 1998, which over 40,000 children attended.

Hanging on his office wall is a keepsake of the occasion, and autographed photograph of him, Piper and Mandela.

“I just found the whole Sky Dome event one of those magical moments in a person’s life,” said Cressy, his eyes drifting as he recalled the day.

“It was very inspirational. Here’s a guy who spent 26 years in jail, and came out with no revenge. It’s an extraordinary story.”

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